Everything You Need to Know: Tempeh



As a non-vegan, imagine my surprise when I suggested we go for tempeh and Bri (the vegan) flat-out refused. “No way am I trying that!” she exclaimed. “I’ll eat any soy product, but not tempeh”.

Fast forward a few months. After significant arm twisting, I finally convinced her to take a teeny-tiny bite of my favorite sandwich, the BLT(empeh). And that was it! She was hooked. Not only did she refuse to give my sandwich back, but from that day on, we have always had tempeh in our fridge.

Even Brianna’s family– stanch omnivores with a severe distrust of anything alternative– loved the flavor. They gladly welcomed tempeh as an addition to their usual diet. Because health benefits aside, it just tastes great!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about making a meat substitute…this is about flavorful, nutrient-dense, fermented tempeh. Tempeh is beyond tasty. It has a rich, tangy flavor that brightens any sandwich or dish…use it to top crackers or enjoy by itself. Packed full of filling protein, omnivores and vegans alike embrace this power food!

What is tempeh

Tempeh is one of the few soy-based foods that did not originate in China, Japan or Korea. It is believed to have originated on the island of Java, Indonesia and made its way to China via trade as early as 1000 AD. Tempeh, like tofu, is derived from soybeans. But don’t be deterred if you’re not a fan of tofu! Tempeh is truly unique and has a different flavor and texture. Plus, it is inexpensive and nourishing! High in fiber, protein, manganese, copper, phosphorus, vitamin B12, magnesium and key phytonutrients.

Why fermentation

We live in a sterile society. Our grocery stores are lined with rows of anti-bacterial soaps, we’re encouraged to wash our hands constantly, and we fear germs at every turn. So, why would you purposely consume food that has been exposed to and fermented by bacteria? It sounds gross, right?

You may be shocked to learn that if you indulge in alcoholic beverages, you have already partook in the bacteria-sensation that’s sweeping the nation. And it’s amazing! Fermented foods provide two services to the body:

  1. Food fermentation breaks down the nutrients into smaller components, via enzymes. Because the lining of the small intestine is very particular about what it absorbs, large components are often not allowed to pass through, which results in valuable nutrients being flushed from the body. The smaller the nutritional components, the easier and more readily absorption occurs. This “pre-digestion” that occurs in fermented foods allows for more nutrient absorption by the body. Therefore, the nutrients found in fermented foods are considered to be more ‘bioavailable’ because of the easily absorbed nature of the nutrients.
  2. Fermentation of food introduces a larger population of enzymes to the body, including enzymes the body is unable to produce itself! This increased number allows for better digestion and more thorough absorption of nutrients from all foods consumed! Adding fermented foods to the diet increases the bioavailability of all food consumed. This is why tempeh and kombucha are such a great additions to any diet!

Tempeh’s Fermentation Benefits

Due to the bioavailability of nutrients, tempeh provides nutritional benefits such as minerals, phytonutrients and proteins. It allows for the formation of vitamin K, an important nutrient for collagen formation. Important for many processes in the body, vitamin K is also responsible for reducing the duration of bruises. Specifically, tempeh contains vitamin K2 (menaquinone-7/MK-7). MK-7 has shown to correspond to a lower risk of hip fracture in older men and women, according to a Japanese study.


Soyasaponins are bioactive compounds found in many legumes (soybeans!) and studies suggest they contain anti-carcinogenic properties for the colon. The bioactivity of these compounds increase with lipophilicity– the hydrolization of soyasaponins, such as occurs by the fermentation process of colonic microflora. This research suggests fermented soybeans may be an important dietary chemopreventitive agent against colon cancer.

How? Soyasaponins directly inhibit/suppress the growth factor of colon cancer cells. Colon cancer is a relatively slow-growing cancer and can take years for the disease to show any symptoms. Adding tempeh to the diet is a preventative method that helps to suppress the formation of polyps from growing and potentially becoming cancerous. As with all things, there isn’t a catch-all cancer prevention, and you should always consult with a medical professional. Regardless, adding tempeh to your well-rounded diet is a healthy and delicious option!


According to a recent study out of Malaysia, tempeh is an especially great source of calcium. The study investigated postmenopausal women, finding that calcium from tempeh was as equally well-absorbed as the calcium from cow’s milk– making tempeh a great option for those who are unable to consume milk!

Where to buy

Unfortunately, tempeh can be difficult to find in the store and what little is available may not be appropriate for your dietary needs. Many tempeh products are pre-flavored and cut in to strips, often containing gluten in their marinates. Our favorite tempeh comes in block form and is unflavored. We prefer the Litelife brand. Ordinary grocery stores may not stock it, but you can usually find tempeh in natural food stores or specialty asian grocery stores.

How to buy

Look for tempeh covered by a thin whitish bloom, appears tightly bound, and is drier on the outside surface. It’s okay if the tempeh has a few black or grayish spots, but never buy it if there are pink, yellow or blue colorations as they suggest over-fermentation. The aroma should be mushroom-like.

Uncooked tempeh can be kept in the refrigerator for up to ten days. Once the package is opened, well-wrapped tempeh will keep in the refrigerator. It can also keep fresh for several months in the freezer!


  1. Amadou I, Yong-Hui S, Sun J et al. Fermented Soybean Products: Some Methods, Antioxidants Compound Extraction and their Scavenging Activity. Asian Journal of Biochemistry Year: 2009 Vol: 4 Issue: 3 Pages/record No.: 68-76. 2009.
  2. Gurfinkel, D. M., and A. V. Rao. “Soyasaponins: The Relationship Between Chemical Structure and Colon Anticarcinogenic Activity.” Nutrition and Cancer 47.1 (2003): 24-33. Web.
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  6. Hidayat M, Sujatno M, Sutadipura N et al. Conglycinin Content Obtained from Two Soybean Varieties Using Different Preparation and Extraction Methods. Hayati Journal of Biosciences. 2011;18(1): 37-42 . 2011.
  7. Ikeda Y, Iki M, Morita A et al. Intake of fermented soybeans, natto, is associated with reduced bone loss in postmenopausal women: Japanese Population-Based Osteoporosis (JPOS) Study. J Nutr. 2006 May;136(5):1323-8. 2006.
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1 comment

  • Karen

    August 22, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    Brianna’s mom here. Just wanted to confirm that YES, we loved the tempeh! In fact, my youngest has asked me to make it at home and asked if she could have a tempeh sandwich for her school lunch too! Girls, I’d love to have the recipe you used the last time you were over. Love, Mom

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